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Korea's Kia debuts in Western US

AMERICA'S largest car market - Los Angeles - has a new Kia on the block.

Kia, a Korean automaker, recently unveiled its Sephia RS at 16 dealerships in this sprawling city, completing the first phase of a market-by-market roll-out of the car in 11 Western states. Boasting a 1.6-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine, the four-door sedan has a suggested retail price of $8,495.

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``Our strategy is to make haste, slowly,'' says Geno Effler, head spokesman for Kia. ``We have often been told these recessionary times are a bad time to launch a new car. But we counter that this is the best time because the price segment we are entering has been abandoned by every other maker.''

Sales have averaged 20 a month at each of the more than 50 other dealerships set up in the West since the Kia was premiered in Portland, Ore., in February. ``That bodes well when you figure the car and name don't have a tremendous image, reputation, or advertising budget behind them,'' says George Peterson, analyst for AutoPacific, an automotive research planning group.

Analyst Tom Dukes, an analyst at J.D. Power & Associates, says, ``I hate to say I was surprised at how well it is put together, but I was. They've obviously done their homework.''

Kia produces 700,000 cars and trucks a year in 90 countries. With revenue of more than $4 billion in 1993, the company ranks 333rd on Fortune Magazine's Global 500 list and is South Korea's second-largest carmaker next to Hyundai. The Kia plant in Seoul has been building Ford-designed Festiva economy cars since 1987, and now builds the Ford Aspire.

Charlie Potalivo, chief salesman at Chuck Obershaw Toyota in San Bernardino, Calif., says the biggest appeal of the Sephia will be its $8,500 price tag, three-year warranty, and 12-month roadside assistance agreement. ``It's going to be a challenge to make their mark in the land of the big boys,'' Mr. Potalivo says, ``but they are really dedicated to doing as much as they can.''

Kia's strategy from here includes opening dealerships through the South and Southeast to Florida then up the East Coast, selling nationally by the end of 1995. The company will launch another model late in the year - a four-wheel-drive, sport-utility vehicle called the ``Sportage.''

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